Joining an established cast of well-loved characters might faze some, but Karen David embraced her role in Cold Feet, writes Janet Christie
When Karen David joined the cast for the return of hit comedy drama Cold Feet, she thought she’d put her foot right in it with co-star James Nesbitt. After landing the role of much younger love interest for Adam, whose wife Rachel was killed off at the end of the last series, and as the newcomer on the cast, she was desperate to fit in.
“Talk about being nervous, and the newbie with a group of people who had worked together for years. I was worried about fitting in and wanted to make a good first impression. It was a big deal. So when Jimmy asked me if I remembered the show I said, ‘yes, I remember watching it around the time that I was starting college’. It was probably the wrong answer. He said, ‘Oh, shut up!’. But he’s such a lovely, funny guy, he was just joking. They were all a joy to work with. I felt like I was learning from the best.
“Of course I’d heard of Cold Feet because it was huge, but when I was offered a part I was nervous to know what the role was. When my agent told me it was to play Adam’s new love interest I was surprised. I said, ‘Really? Is he going through a midlife crisis?’ But when you see these characters together they make complete sense. He makes her light up like a light bulb and they’re both cheeky and ambitious, enjoying life. They just fit.”
Back in 1998 Cold Feet captured the nation’s affections with the lives, laughs and loves of three thirtysomething couples. For the next five series over 32 episodes Adam and Rachel, Pete and Jenny and Karen and David had babies, affairs, divorces and breakdowns as they negotiated the minefield of life. The series was dubbed ‘the British Friends’ and topped the ratings, winning numerous awards, including a BAFTA. When it ended in 2003, an audience of 10.7 million watched Rachel’s funeral.
Now the nation’s favourite couples are back in a new eight-part series produced by ITV Studios-owned indie Big Talk Productions, with original creator and writer Mike Bullen still at the helm. Filmed on location in Manchester, the show reunites James Nesbitt, Robert Bathurst, Hermione Norris, John Thomson, and Fay Ripley. As well as David playing Adam’s love interest Angela, there is also another new cast member in the shape of actor and Radio 1 presenter, Ceallach Spellman, who plays Matthew, the teenage son of Adam and Rachel.
I was bullied at school. I was different, and kids can be mean. Now I can laugh. It’s a cliché but it does make you strongerKaren David
Fast forward 13 years and Adam is travelling the world, searching for a way to move on after Rachel’s death. The thirtysomethings are now fiftysomethings and still negotiating the highs, lows and hangovers, only this time round the recovery takes a little longer in the morning.
“People in their fifties and that’s something you don’t really see on TV right now,” says David. “But 50 is the new 40. You’re crossing another precipice. It’s something to celebrate. Before it was about crossing from your twenties into your thirties.”
This is something David can identify with, at 37 still qualifying as a thirtysomething.
“It’s a big deal. Your twenties are over in the blink of an eye. Everyone goes through panic attacks and anxieties, crossing into their thirties, and Cold Feet made people feel like they weren’t alone. The main thing you’re thinking is, ‘Oh my God, I thought I would be somewhere else at 30. What do I do now?’ So you pull your socks up, and it forces you to focus on what you want in life, what you want your legacy to be as a human being.”
In the new series Adam meets Angela in Singapore, and they fall in love, with Angela giving up her successful life abroad to start a new one in Manchester with Adam, his teenage son and of course, his friends.
“There’s a 20-year-age difference between them,” says David. “Before his friends meet her Adam shows them photos of Angela and they say, ‘great, but have you got anything recent?’ It’s funny.”
“It’s a culture shock for her, and she has to be a new step-mum too,” says David. “She gives up a lot because she loves him. And obviously, it’s called Cold Feet, so Adam gets temporary moments of cold feet, but he loves her and thinks he’s doing the right thing. It’s a perfect match.”
Before Cold Feet David’s screen credits include playing Princess Isabella in ABC’s hugely popular musical comedy series Galavant, and a Spanish teacher who had an affair with a pupil in Waterloo Road. She appeared alongside Kiefer Sutherland in his 2012 series, Touch and was Layla in the film The Scorpion King 2: Rise of the Warrior in 2008. You might also recognise her from Bollywood Queen which starred James McAvoy and Ian McShane, and Batman Begins with Michael Caine.
Born in Shillong, India in 1979, to a Chinese-Khasi mother and Indian father, David was brought up in Toronto. After school she studied music in Boston, then when she was 17, moved to London to study at the Guildford School of Acting.
What she now appreciates as a rich multicultural heritage, she wasn’t always quite so grateful for at high school, when she was made to feel like an outsider.
“I was bullied at school,” she says. “I was different, and kids can be mean. Now I can laugh. It’s a cliché but it does make you stronger. In the morning I can look in the mirror and am proud that I went through that chapter. I’m Chinese, Indian, Jewish. My mum is Catholic, my dad is Christian and we have Jewish roots. I’m not Hindu, I’m not Muslim, I’m not Sikh, so a lot of fellow Indians felt we didn’t fit in with them either. As a child I could never understand why I didn’t fit in.
“But everything happens for a reason and I know the bullying is a life experience that will make me a better actor and continue to help me improve and play different roles.
“When I left school and started seeing the world and getting more life experience, I realised you just have to be yourself and embrace all these wonderful things. And because I have a mixed heritage it’s allowed me to be a chameleon. I play everyone from Mediterranean to Malaysian to Singaporean to Indian.”
David laughs about it now, but when she was a child she wanted to be a blue-eyed blonde-haired singer/actress. In fact she wanted to be Olivia Newton-John.
“My sister said, ‘ right, we are watching this movie’, and put on Xanadu. Honestly, I was immediately completely in awe of Olivia Newton-John: her voice, her charisma, I was entranced. I wanted to be blonde -haired and blue-eyed, which was never going to happen, and sing and act like her, which has!”
So David knew what she wanted to do from a young age, but at school she kept her head down and in the books.
“One teacher asked where we saw ourselves in the next ten years and I was this pimply faced girl, looking up and saying I want to act, write songs and record music. The other kids just said, ‘what, looking like that?’ It hurt but I owe them a debt of gratitude because it pushed me to prove something, to show them they were wrong.
“I was a geek with acne and I used to hide behind my hair. I was a nerd, because being from a South Asian family, they’re very strict about getting good grades. You have to work extra hard to make something of yourself because they’ve made sacrifices to get you there.”
David goes on to point out that although her parents were concerned about her grades, they also encouraged her to follow her dreams and nurtured her ambitions. After all, her father had been a professional cricketer, before his career was cut short by injury.
“Faced with this little six-year-old brown child saying ‘I want to go to Hollywood and be in movies and act’, they looked at me and wondered where it was coming from. But they didn’t panic. They talked to me like an adult and said ‘we are new immigrants which means we can’t take time off work but if you get straight As we will get you singing and acting lessons’. And they held their side of the bargain. They didn’t force me to do something stable like be a doctor, lawyer or accountant. Although there are times when I’ve thought, ‘Oh my God, why didn’t I do that?’” she says.
Background also plays a part in David’s ability to pursue her choice of career as she credits her Khasi maternal grandmother with enabling her to take up a place at acting college. The Khasi tribe, indigenous to the state of Meghalaya in the Himalayas, follow the matrilineal system of descent and inheritance, and it was the money from the sale of her grandmother’s house that paid her drama college fees.
“Just thinking about that makes me emotional,” says David. “I come from a very humble background, but my grandmother gave everything to those less fortunate. So that, coming from her, I felt I had to make something out of my time at college, and to say thank you for the sacrifices my parents made.”
Upcoming roles include Princess Jasmine in ABC’s Once Upon a Time, set in a world in which fairy-tale legends and modern life collide, and an American/Indian film called The Tiger Hunter that has just won best picture, best director and ensemble cast and audience award at the American Pacific Film Festival.
“It’s just started doing the rounds, but it’s doing well. It’s a beautiful film and I’m really proud of it,” says David.
As well as her acting career, the little girl who wanted to be Olivia Newton-John also has a parallel music career. On leaving drama school she landed a part in the ensemble and as an understudy in Mamma Mia! in the West End. One night she stood in for the star and caught the eye of Indian music legend AH Rahman, Oscar-winning composer of the Slumdog Millionaire score. He asked David to assist him with Bollywood-themed musical Bombay Dreams that he was creating with Andrew Lloyd Webber and she sang on the show’s US and Canadian tour, continuing to collaborate with Rahman.
Signed to BMG music in 2003, her debut album, Me Versus Me, was described as Kylie Minogue with Bollywood instrumentals. Her second album, Dust to Stars, was released in 2013.
“I had a top ten single and an album, then BMG, my record label, merged with Sony. They kept me on the books and I had to wait two years until I could do something musically. So I acted again in the Scorpion King 2 and doors started opening. Acting and music have always been my two greatest loves since I was a girl.”
The music business is also where David met her husband, Swedish record producer Carl Ryden, who has worked with Cher and J-Lo. They married three years ago and Ryden travels with her from their home in Richmond, London, to wherever she is on location.
“He’s so supportive. There are moments where I get a phone call saying in three days can you be in Cape Town for a month, then in Barcelona for ten? The beauty of his job is that he can take his basic kit with him to practice anywhere and be with me.”
David describes her husband as a laid back Swede, who if not exactly demonstrating anything that could remotely be called cold feet, did however need a little more focus when it came to marriage.
“I had to wait four years until he popped the question. I said ‘I love you to bits but you’re either going to sail with the ship or jump off’. Now we’re married I feel like I’m in a stable family.
“In this business you need a thick skin and stamina, and someone to keep things real and put them into perspective. I have all that in my relationship with Carl. Because he’s in music he understands about practice and performance, but has no inclination to be in front of the camera like me.”
So life follows art, and it would seem that like her Cold Feet character, Karen David appears to have found the perfect fit.